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Washington reopens June 30, but there are some questions. We asked the state's top doc

Ed Ronco
An "open" sign hangs in the window at Bambino's Pizzeria in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood.

Washington state is on track to fully reopen its economy by June 30. The state has been under some form of pandemic-related restriction since mid-March of 2020. 

The plan to return to business (mostly) as usual follows surprise guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month, saying fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks.

But what is ostensibly good news also brings questions. So we put some of them to the state Secretary of Health, Dr. Umair Shah. Listen above, or read the transcript below, which has been edited for clarity.


Ed Ronco, KNKX: It feels like it wasn't that long ago that we were hearing about counties rolling back and a fourth wave coming through because of case counts and hospitalization benchmarks. So what changed? 

Dr. Umair Shah, Washington state Secretary of Health: We started to see the numbers change. And so when you start to see a plateau and a flattening and then you start to see it going in a better direction, that gave us the confidence. The governor was very clear about this: Let's pause. (Washington state paused its movement through reopening phases for about two weeks.) And fortunately, those trends have continued. It’s really this combination of the difficulty that all of us have faced, which is that every decision has some impact on either end. And really making the best decisions has been a challenge. But when you're following those numbers, then it makes it a lot easier.

KNKX: Many epidemiologists have expressed some skepticism about the CDC's mask guidance. And just recently, Dr. Jeff Duchin, the top public health official in King County, said it caused unnecessary and avoidable confusion. He's taking a much more cautious approach, urging the continued use of masks. What's your view on all of this?

Dr. Umair Shah poses in a dark suit, smiling with his arms folded.
Credit Office of Gov. Jay Inslee
Office of Gov. Jay Inslee
Dr. Umair Shah, Washington state Secretary of Health.

Shah: The CDC has really had a challenging job. They've been beat up quite a bit in many ways on so many things, sometimes rightfully so, and sometimes unfairly. My quibble on this one was that they didn't give advance notice to states and locals (governments). We are their partners. We are the ones that they should look to, to give us advance notice, so we can plan out how it's going to be operationalized within a state or on the ground. When they put this guidance out there, it put the state in a difficult position because the CDC is saying: “Here's what the science is. Here's what the evidence is, that if you're vaccinated, by and large, you are protected.” And if we don't adopt that, well, then the other side is that “the CDC just said, the science is saying that you don't need to have those restrictions in place.” 

And so we found ourselves in the right spot, which was to say, look, statewide, we do not have to have these requirements, but respect the rules of the room. Know what's happening in your local jurisdiction, know what's happening in your local establishment. We at the (state) Department of Health are going to support that. So when you hear Dr. Duchin saying, “Look, I want to be more cautious,” I'm not going to say, “No, Dr. Duchin, that's not right.” 

We need to continue to do everything we can, and if our local officials feel that they need to be more restrictive to be more cautious, we're going to support that. CDC could have avoided that, could have helped us. You can't do that on a dime. You need some time to plan it. But ultimately, I think we've landed in a better spot.

KNKX: Well, you're a physician. Let me ask the question the way it might sound if I was sitting in an exam room talking to you, which is: Dr. Shah, I'm nervous about taking my mask off. I'm vaccinated, but I'm not sure everybody I encounter is. I don't want to put myself at any risk, but I also don't want to perhaps transmit something to somebody I know or love, or even somebody I don't know. What should I do?

Shah: So the first thing I'm going to say to you is, don't take it off. There is no one forcing you to take that mask off. If you are feeling uncomfortable, keep that mask on. I'm not going to take it off your face and say don't wear the mask. 

I've got three kids: 11, 7 and 4. None of them are eligible to be vaccinated. My wife and I are both health-care providers. We believe in vaccines. We're both vaccinated. When we jump in the car, and the kids drop their masks back on, if they see Mom and Dad … without our masks, it doesn't model good behavior for them. And … especially the 4-year-old is going to try to take his mask off, because Mom doesn't have her mask on or Dad doesn't have his mask on. So we want to champion that. 

This is “Respect the rules of the room.” It's not just respecting the community. It's not just respecting the business entity that you're in. Also, be respectful of the people around you.

KNKX: As we head toward June 30th, one of the caveats in reopening the entire state was that we could roll back if intensive-care units had a 90-percent capacity statewide. Why 90 percent? Where did that number come from? 

Shah: We looked at numbers that were really based on the data that were within the state of Washington, but also talking to our partners in different hospitals and health-care entities, our local public health partners, but also looking at what was happening across the country. We felt the 90-percent mark was the right mark, knowing that ultimately we were going to start to see increases based on no-COVID people that were going to be hospitalized. So we needed to factor all that in.

As a physician, I've always said that there is a science to medicine and there's an art of medicine. And in public health, there is a science of public health. But when you don't have all the science yet or you don't have all the evidence, there is also an art of public health. And ultimately, we have to remember both.

KNKX: Vaccination has been to some degree -- as we look nationwide, certainly -- economically and racially stratified. Does this push to reopen leave people behind or risk doing so? 

Shah: Well, we hope not. I mean, you know, we are doing everything we can. Governor Inslee has been very clear on this. The entire state team has been very clear on this, that we do not want to leave people behind. That would be awful, after so many communities have been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic, to have further worsening because of how we reopen. So we're trying to do everything we can with pro-equity strategies. 

I do not want to see a tale of two cities, a tale of two states, or a tale of two nations, where you have the vaccinated who are doing things and protected, and you have the unvaccinated who are getting hospitalized and unfortunately having worse outcomes. And if we do not get to everyone, that's what we're going to have. And so it's our job to be very focused not just on numbers and the number of people, but also on equity.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.